From the time we’re little, we’re told that we can grow up to be whatever we want to be. We can be actresses, princesses CEOs or MVPs - the possibilities are endless. But what about those little girls (and boys) who don’t have the chance to thrive, chase their dreams and reach their full potential - what happens to them? How do you tell a child that they’re dreaming too big or that there isn’t a lane for their aspirations?
Autumn Williams is living proof that there is no profession too complicated and no dream too big. A Stanford School of Engineering graduate -- a field that doesn’t have many women or women of color -- Autumn found it necessary to be a part of something that not only believes in empowering youth, but also encourages their aspirations. At 25 years old, Autumn is the Senior Entrepreneur of Changemaker Schools for Ashoka, the largest social entrepreneurship network in the world. Autumn uses her passion for education reform and social justice to help cultivate the next generation of leaders, thinkers, movers and shakers. Autumn is a good friend of mine and I had a chance to chat with her and learn more about this exciting new take on education.
Jasmine: What exactly is social entrepreneurship?
Autumn Williams: By definition, a social entrepreneur is an individual with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. At Ashoka, we select, connect, and multiply multiple individuals’ work and ideas in over eighty countries around the world. In my specific work within Ashoka, I select and recruit schools in the U.S. that are doing innovative work in cultivating what we call changemaking skills: leadership, teamwork, empathy, and problem solving. The idea is that we can change the narrative around education by creating the platform for these schools to be thought leaders in education. We’ve found that this same work is happening around the world as Ashoka selects these Changemaker Schools. What I’m especially excited about is what happens when we put these schools and school leaders in conversation with each other. I’m thrilled to learn about what’s working in Nairobi that can work in Watts.
JM: What made you want to want to work with Ashoka?
AW: In different shapes and forms throughout my life, I’ve always been passionate about creating change. While at Stanford, I founded a student organization called STEMgineers Shifting Gears. STEMgineers was originally an initiative to encourage middle school students’ curiosity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through a spring break program. After I was tired of being the “only one” in classes, research groups, and conferences, I started doing some research on the state of American education and saw that middle school was when many young people lose interest in STEM and when mathematics and science are taught differently. I had the idea to travel to Los Angeles during my spring break and lead an afterschool program. A few of friends liked my idea and came with me to teach what they were learning and researching in a way that middle school students could understand. Every lesson was project-based and we fed the students all organic food. That program grew and I now work with middle school and high school students during the spring and summer. The lessons are still project-based and the instructors are still college students. Although I was on track to continue my work in aerospace after graduation, I really enjoyed working in and researching education reform and wondered how I could make this a full-time gig. I wanted more of an opportunity to create, shape and lead a movement that was close to my heart. It’s so rewarding to be involved in every aspect of your own project. After my work with Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, one of my best friends and I were talking about social entrepreneurship, changemaking, and the work that he was doing at Ashoka. I became interested in the intersection of social entrepreneurship and education and an opportunity at Ashoka presented itself where I could further explore that intersection.
JM: You graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Engineering. That’s impressive for not only women of color, but women in general. What do you see as the disconnect between women and the field of engineering?
AW: I think the fact that we say it’s impressive is the problem. It shouldn’t be rare for any demographic to be rare in any sector, but unfortunately that’s the reality in many spaces including STEM fields. I think that shifting the way people view the industry has a lot to do with how we talk about it. That’s the disconnect - continuing to see it as a one-off career choice or seeing the female engineer as an anomaly. We have to make sure young people and adults know there’s no such thing as a typical engineer or scientist and no such thing as a typical career for a woman to choose. I think once we take away the “rare factor” and make it more of a normal occurrence and something that’s attainable, then we’ll start to see a change. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that one day it won’t be surprising to hear a little black girl say she wants to be a rocket scientist.
JM: I hope so too! What has been the biggest risk you’ve taken professionally and how has it paid off?
AW: I think the biggest risk I’ve taken has been my transition from engineering to education and social entrepreneurship. When I was toying around with the idea of pursuing a field very different from aerospace, I talked it over with my mom. She asked me if I was uncomfortable. When I said “of course I am” she replied, “then go for it!”. Trying something new and different has been so rewarding for me. I really learned from her that we often grow the most and thrive when we’re in a new place that’s uncomfortable. I don’t regret pursuing something unknown or challenging myself to be greater. So I’m looking forward to taking more risks and hopefully thriving in that space.
JM: Your work with Ashoka is admirable and inspiring. What’s one piece of advice you would give to young women aspiring to work in the field of education and social justice?
AW: It’s going to sound so cliche, but just do what you’re passionate about. Don’t find yourself in a job because it’s safe or what you’re “supposed to be doing.” Choose a career that ignites the fire in your belly, something that makes you feel good everyday. It’s important to love what you do because sometimes work will require a lot of sacrifices. When you’re passionate about what you do, those things you do for work won’t feel like sacrifices. In addition to being in love with work, it’s also important to remember to set time to metaphorically go back to the well. Make it crucial to replenish your energy and keep yourself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually fulfilled. Don’t work so hard or so much that you don’t have anything left to give yourself.
JM: Your work is so inspiring and you’re helping to change lives. What inspires you?
AW: I’m inspired by so many things, but if I had to narrow it down I would say I’m inspired by two things. One, I’m inspired by seeing young people give themselves permission to be catalysts for change. It warms my heart to see youth not wait for some adult to tell them the can change something. Despite so the world of inequality and injustice we live in, there’s something magical about watching young people being the change they wish to see and finding hope and light in adverse situations. Secondly, I’m inspired by women. I’m blown away by the strength and tenacity of women to exist in spaces where we aren’t expected to. Women are innately powerful and I love watching us use our power to not only survive, but to thrive.
For more about the work that’s being done with Ashoka and their initiatives, visit Asoka.org.